I have covered this subject for some time
and will reference some earlier blogs in this one. As two of Japan’s 50 currently
stopped reactors will be restarted shortly, it may make sense to write an
overview to put this matter into perspective. Before the four reactors at the
Fukushima Daiichi (by the way, "daiichi” means number 1; number 2 is nearby)
nuclear plant got destroyed, there were 54 reactors in Japan. The US has 104
reactors, and Japan has more than half that number in its tiny territory (one twenty-sixth
that of the US).
After the enormous jolt, all four of the Fukushima
Daiichi reactors were automatically shut down but were standing without major
damage to the cores. Hitting all the coastal areas near the epicenter, the
tsunami reached the plant shortly after the earthquake. The tsunami did some
damage to the compound and surrounding areas but did not critically damage the
reactors. However, seawater flooded backup generators that were housed
underground. The decision to house them underground copied US emergency measures
for avoiding damage from tornadoes. Backup power is necessary, when power from
the grid is lost, to cool fuel rods because they get very hot even when reactors
are not in operation. The lack of backup led to hydrogen explosions and the
rest is history.
At the time of the crisis, TEPCO (the utilities company serving
Tokyo and surrounding areas) and the government did not communicate well, and
chaos ruled the entire country. Rumors of radiation reaching Tokyo made people
very nervous. On top of that, rolling blackouts were conducted to save the
collapse of the entire grid, handicapping train service and stranding millions
of people. Adding insult to injury, aftershocks of various scales were felt
very often during that time, making people sleepless and scared.
Now it is revealed that the Japanese
government and the US forces in Japan had accurate information on radiation
cloud flow at the time. However, that information was not shared with people
close to the damaged reactors. Some people were evacuated along the very route
of the radiation cloud flow and received some dose of radiation. One thing I
was surprised by was that there were no clear emergency evacuation guidelines about
which agency of the government should do what or who should evacuate. In the
US, NRC has clear guidelines and plans for
emergency evacuation. For example, the 5-mile radius is considered within
direct threat of radiation, and 50 miles is considered the possible reach of indirect
contamination via food and drink.
Many Japanese people felt that foreigners,
including Americans, overreacted and became hysterical, exaggerating the
disaster as if the entire country were destroyed or blanketed with radiation.
The US embassy in Tokyo issued an advisory to US citizens in Japan to evacuate
beyond the 50-mile radius of the damaged reactors. The embassy simply followed
the NRC guidelines and also had more accurate data about radiation than the average
Japanese population. Yes, there were some overreactions on the part of non-Japanese,
but the Japanese government did not release pertinent information in time, much
less in other languages, making those people worried about the worst.
During the following dozen months, antinuke
sentiment was in full bloom, and everyone (Japanese and people outside of
Japan) believed Japan would abandon nuclear power. Any other opinions were shut
out because it was the right thing to do. But how did that change and why is
Japan restarting some reactors? Time is usually a healer and also contributes
to fading bad memories. People started to forget how bad it was. However, a power
shortage was on everyone's mind. See my earlier postings on this.
Prime Minister (PM) Kan, who was in office
at the time of the disaster, was adamant about getting rid of nuclear plants
and promoting renewable energies instead. He was very unpopular for other
reasons and tried to use this slogan to survive a no-confidence vote. He
delayed restarting all the reactors that were halted for annual checkups by
introducing a new requirement as a condition for a restart. While this was
going on, operational reactors were not stopped for this new requirement.
Finally, he made a deal to step down in exchange for passing a feed-in-tariff
that was subsequently passed and will be in effect on July 1.
His successor is PM Noda, who has not made
his position clear on what to do with the disabled reactors and other reactors.
One by one, reactors were shut down for their annual checkup. But none of them
were restarted even after the successful checkup. And at the end of April this
year, all the reactors were shut down and there were no reactors in operation
to supply power to the grid.
However, towards his first anniversary in
office, PM Noda made a move. He may have been motivated by the coming summer power
crunch, expected especially in the Kansai area (Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, and Nara).
Their reliance on nuclear power was close to 50%, and none of the reactors were
in operation. Long story short, he abruptly formed a committee to decide
security and safety measures for nuclear reactor operation. Even though it had
been more than a year, nothing had been done up to that point. Surprisingly,
his committee came up with the measures in a matter of a few days. The security
and safety measures were not shared with the general public, and I am not sure
if experts in the field contributed to them. The measures were approved, and
the stage has been set to restart two (at the Ooi plant) of the halted reactors
in the Kansai area.
||The Ooi plant is located at A
Governors and mayors close to the Ooi plant
opposed restarting the reactors without well-thought-out safety and security
measures. But in the end, they were forced to accept the restart. With no more
formidable opposition, the government gave the go-ahead to KEPCO, which serves
the Kansai area. The restart of the two reactors is imminent.
This oversimplified journal gives you the
story on what has happened in the pursuit of restarting nuclear reactors in Japan
since the quake. I am not against the restart of the reactors as long as real
safety and security measures are discussed with scientists but not by
politicians. My prediction is that a good number of the remaining 48 reactors
will be restarted soon. There is no longer a barrier to restarting them.
The year's election in California includes
a referendum to halt two nuclear power plants in the state until permanent
nuclear fuel process plants are built. After Japan's disaster, public sentiment
in the US moved against nuclear power. But as time goes by, people forget. The
US and other countries are building more nuclear power plants. See A
US Nuclear Power Renaissance? (February 12, 2012).
Interested readers may want to refer to my
blogs on Japan's nuclear power: